One of the fundamental problems with space exploration is that we’re not built to be in a zero-gravity environment. If we don’t move for long periods of time, our bones begin releasing calcium and wasting away. This is why astronauts have to get on that exercise bike for hours at a time, and even that isn’t terribly effective at preventing the loss of bone mass. But there is an animal that doesn’t move for months and who has an intact skeleton when it wakes up: The good old Dumpster-stealing, bread-catching, rock-chucking bear.
As we all know, bears hibernate, usually for up to six months. Researchers found themselves wondering how they didn’t wake up with severe bone wastage, and looked into their enzymes. It turns out, bears fool their body into thinking it’s active by bringing down the number of bone-producing enzymes while simultaneously increasing the level of a protein called “cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript,” which is basically like meth or cocaine, except naturally produced by your body. So, yes, bears are technically more coked up than an ’80s Wall Street trader for six months while they hibernate, but they also don’t produce any more bone.
While nobody is suggesting astronauts do cocaine (yet), it does indicate the solution might be simply in convincing the body not to generate or destroy any new bone. Whether this works on humans will need to be tested, of course, but if it does work, we may have made a crucial jump forward in making long-term space travel a reality. So be nice to bears; they’re helping us conquer the universe.